Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 9

Sirius and Religion

AS Sirius walked home to the laboratory after his day with Plaxy, brooding on the shortcomings of man, and his own loneliness, and the indifference of the universe, he began to slip into the wolf-mood. Frustration always tended to have this effect on him, and he was feeling desperately frustrated. He longed for self-expression, and could find no means of attaining it. When he was a puppy he had decided that he would be a general, deploying his human troops with super-human skill, charging with them to superhuman victory. Ludicrous, impossible dream! Later he had determined to be an explorer of the Siberian Tundra or prairies (a country that he thought suited to his powers); but how could a dog take the necessary gear with him without causing excitement among the human inhabitants? Or perhaps Australian sheep-farming would suit him, or some kind of hunting career in the north of Canada. No, by now it was all too clear that nothing would suit him, nothing was possible but to be a super-lap-dog-cum-super-laboratory-animal.

Yet always there was a strange nagging “something” within him which said, “Get on with it! You have unique powers. There is only one of you, and you exist to make your contribution to the world. Find your calling. It is difficult for you, no doubt, but you must find it or be damned.” Sometimes the voice said, “For you, humanity is the pack. You are not one of them, but they made you and you are for them. And because you are different you can give them a vision which they can never win for themselves,” Could he, after all, fulfil his task, perhaps, through music? Grandiose fantasies assailed him. “Sirius, the unique canine composer, not only changed the whole character of human music, importing into it something of the dog’s finer auditory sensibility; he also, in his own incomparable creations, expressed the fundamental identity-indiversity of all spirits, of whatever species, canine, human or super-human.”

But no! It could not be. Man would never listen to him. And what reason had he to suppose that he had the genius to strike his music into the deep incomprehensible heart of man?

On the way back to the laboratory Sirius heard the familiar nagging voice, calling him to express the “spirit” in him. He greeted it with an inward snarl. What could he possibly do about it? Nothing. He was a misfit, a mistake. He ought never to have occurred.

He felt an increasing impulse to run amok in the street. Life was no good to him. Why not throw it away, why not kill as many as he could of these ridiculously bedecked, swelled-headed apes, until they managed to destroy him? “I won’t, I won’t,” he kept saying to himself. “Even if they are apes, or forked worms, they are the same stuff really as I am.” Fleeing from himself, he broke into a trot, a canter, a real gallop, needing the seclusion of his own room. There, he paced up and down for many hours, far into the night. These hours form a crucial point in his life, so I shall quote from the account which he himself wrote down on the following day; turgid stuff, but significant of his unwholesome state.

“I walked and walked, rubbing my shoulder painfully against the wall every time I turned, snapping at the curtain as I passed it. This was affectation; I was dramatizing myself as a caged beast. The colleges and churches chimed, quarter by quarter. The noise of passing cars died down as the night advanced. I kept remembering with fury the smell of Plaxy, dear and loathsome; and the scent of my last bitch, so sweet, but false, promising a lovely spirit that did not exist. Then the sudden presence of Idwal’s friendly smell, and of a flock of sheep, drenched with mist. The smell of Pugh, sweaty and excited. Of frost, of a summer day, of wind from the sea, of the change of wind from west to east. Trails of rabbit and hare. The infuriating stink of cat. Fox, rich and subtle. The menagerie. Chloroform, and the two toughs that had attacked me. The faint, throat-tightening smell of suffering which sometimes seems to come from the part of the lab where I have never been.

“Below all this flood of smells there was an undercurrent of sounds; tones of human voices, and dog voices; bleating of sheep and lambs; the wind, whimpering or furious; snatches of human music, and themes of my own singing.

“My whole life seemed to crowd in on me in smell and sound; and touch also, for I felt Plaxy’s hand on my neck, and the cracking of bones between my teeth, and the soft flanks of a young setter that I had loved long ago in Ffestiniog.

“Visual shapes came too, but dimly, unsteadily. Sometimes I glimpsed Thomas with pursed lips, considering me; sometimes Plaxy smiling.

“While these memories presented themselves to me, thoughts also kept racing and jostling one another through my mind, chiefly terrified and resentful thoughts about man’s power over me, and my own failure to be master of my fate. How could I ever save myself from the breakdown that had already begun in me? What help was there anywhere for me? Thomas did not really understand the creature he had made. Elizabeth was always ready to hear my troubles and comfort me; but somehow she turned them all into child’s troubles. And Plaxy was now so far away. It was ‘the spirit,’ we had said, that mattered. It was ‘in the spirit’ that we were eternally together. But now? Had we meant anything real at all by ‘the spirit’? I wondered. After all we were just animals, with some degree of intelligence; animals of different species, doomed never really to be at one with each other, always in discord, and now drifting inevitably apart.

“Why, why was everything so sweet in promise and yet always in realization bitter?

“But presently, as I paced up and down the little room, a queer thing happened. It was as though my wandering imagination came upon a new quality, different from all that I had ever known; yet one which was also more familiar and intimate than the smell of Plaxy in the mood of love, more piercing sweet than bitches, more hunt-worthy than the trail of a fox.

“No, I must not romanticize. This is a scientific report. No new sensory quality really came to inc. But something happened in my mind which I can’t describe in any other way. If it was a fragrance at all, it was the fragrance of love and wisdom and creating, of these for their own sake, whether crowned with success and happiness or not. It was this fragrance, which somehow came to me with such a fresh poignancy that it was something entirely new to me. It was this fragrance, trailed across the universe, winding in and out of all its chasms and interstices, that had so often enticed me; but now in my excited state it presented itself to me so vividly that I had to dramatize it to myself as a new quality, neither odour nor sound nor visible form, but most like an odour to be pursued.

“And I did pursue it. I stopped pacing, and lay down with my forelegs stretched before me: and I laid my chin along them. Ignoring all the other remembered scents, I pursued this strange new trail, with the flying feet of inner attention, And as I followed, the trail became stronger, clearer, more exquisite. Sometimes it escaped me, but casting back I recovered it. Sometimes my strength failed, and as I flagged the trail grew fainter. But I gathered myself together again for the chase, and as I pursued, lessening the distance between myself and the quarry, the scent grew clearer and more compelling.

“At last a terrible thing happened. As I drew nearer, the quality of the heavenly quarry seemed to change. Though its exquisite sweetness remained, drawing me on, a new, pungent tang, a stinging, choking, bitter, exquisite and terrifying perfume, was mixed with it. There was something in it that made my mind reel, as the chloroform had done; and something fierce, like the mighty smells of tiger and lion, but with a grimness that no earthly smell ever had. I could not give up the chase. With staggering mind I still clung to the trail. The thing that I was hunting must surely be the source of all fragrance in the universe, and all horror also. And I was famished for the thing. I must, must reach it; though in the end surely not I should devour it, but it would devour me. Surely the thing that I was crazily hunting must be the very thing that men called God, the dear and beautiful and dread.

“At last it was as though the quarry turned at bay and overwhelmed me. Remembering, I cannot recapture that moment of agony and bliss, the agony of my slaughtered self, the bliss of the freed spirit in me. It was as though — how can I put it? — as though the trail which had first promised the most succulent prey, and then the most formidable but spell-binding enemy, had led after all not to the universal Tiger but to the universal Master, the superhuman master whom my super-canine nature so desperately needed to take possession of me and steady me with his claim for absolute loyalty and service.

“That supreme moment passed. I can remember only that when it passed I found peace such as I had not known before and shall never, I believe, quite lose. The whole universe now presented itself with a new quality, as though my monochrome vision had suddenly gained the glory of colour. But the colours that I saw were not of sensation. They were the colours that are seen by the eye of the spirit. All the things and people that I had seen hitherto in the plain greys of ordinary life were now enriched with a great diversity of the new quality which I am calling colour, so that they gained a new meaning, much as sounds gain a new meaning in speech or music. I saw them all in their own true colours and suffused with the music of the whole. And even now, on the day after my glorious moment, which is lost save for its afterglow in my mind, I still see every thing coloured by the light of the spirit.”

There followed a postscript.

“All this was written on the day after my vision, if vision it was. And now another day has passed. I have read it over, and I see that it does not describe at all the thing that happened to me. It is sentimental verbiage. It does not recapture the experience for me, it blurs it. But I am certain that something big really did happen to me. And the proof shall be shown in my life. I will take charge of my life. I will drift no more. I will still be true to science, but I will be true to my new light also. I will be a sceptic about everything but one thing, which does not admit of scepticism (once one has clearly seen it), namely that it does indeed matter to be as quickened a spirit as possible, and to live for the quickening of the spirit everywhere. In fact I am going to be the hound of the spirit. Me? Lazy, excuse-finding me? That’s a good joke, isn’t it! Looking at the matter with scientific detachment, I am sure I shall be adrift again before the week is out. Well, even if I am, the thing that happened the night before last will make a difference. And looking at it all in the light of the thing — no, by God! I shall never be adrift again! Not fundamentally.”

With much misgiving Sirius dutifully offered this document to Thomas. Would he be amused, or annoyed? Or would he take it with all his aloof scientific detachment as a psychological datum? Sirius never discovered what Thomas really felt about it. The great physiologist was respectful, almost diffident; and hoped Sirius did not object to having the document typed in triplicate, “for the laboratory records, and to show to a few of my friends, if you don’t mind.”

This seemingly mystical experience awakened in Sirius a new interest in religion. Through one of Thomas’s guests he stumbled on the literature of mysticism, and was soon devoting a great deal of his time to St. Catherine of Siena, St. John of the Cross, Jacob Boehme, the Vedanta, and so on. It was Thomas who had to procure these works for him; and the task made Thomas smell acrid and disapproving, even though in word and deed he remained sympathetic.

Sirius now conceived a great desire to discuss religion with some sincere and orthodox religious person. No such person, it seemed, was among Thomas’s circle of trusted friends who might be admitted into the secret of Sirius’s intelligence. They were all either strictly scientific in the narrow sense or inclined to say “One feels in one’s bones that there must be something in religion, but God knows what.” Contact with these people merely increased Sirius’s desire to pursue the matter, without helping him.

Sometimes he would hang about the doors of chapels and churches, to watch the congregation enter or leave the building, or to strain his hypersensitive ears to catch reverberations of the music, the prayers, the lessons and the sermon. The fact that as a mere dog he was not allowed into the sacred building increased his sense of exile and inferiority, and his readiness to believe that in spite of the critics it was within those walls that man attained his highest range of experience.

On one occasion his hunger for the truth was so great that he could not restrain himself from a very foolish act. It was summer time, and there was a heat wave. He had been watching the worshippers entering a little Methodist Chapel. Contrary to custom, the doors were not shut before the service began. Emotional prayer and vigorous singing flooded out upon him. To his refined sensibility the music was crude and the execution vulgar, but these very imperfections increased for him the feeling that music was here only a hastily executed symbol of some ulterior experience. A poem might be sincere no matter how hastily it had been scribbled. Jarred by the barbaric sound, yet fascinated, Sirius drifted step by step into the porch and across the inner threshold. He had entered during a prayer. The minister’s eyes were reverently closed. His tone of voice was unctuous and complacently servile. With the conventional intonation of penitence and worship, but without any inner experience of them, he affirmed the sinfulness of the whole human race, and confidently, flatteringly, asked his God for forgiveness and eternal bliss for himself and his flock. The backs of the bowed congregation appeared above the pews like the backs of sheep in a pen. But their smell on that hot day was all too human.

When the prayer was ended the minister opened his eyes. He saw the great dog standing in the aisle. Pointing dramatically at Sirius, he exclaimed, “Who has brought that animal into God’s House? Put it out!” Several black coats and striped trousers moved towards Sirius. They expected him to retire before them, but he stood his ground, his head and tail erect, his back bristling. A faint growl, rather like distant thunder, made the assailants hesitate. Sirius looked round the building. All eyes were turned on him, some outraged, some amused. He turned slowly to retrace his steps. The ejectors cautiously advanced. One of them said, “Good dog! Go home!” but another began to chivvy him with an umbrella, and rashly tapped his haunch. Sirius leapt round with a bark that echoed through the bare chapel, and his pursuers retreated a pace. He stood looking at them for a few moments, amused at his easy triumph. The hair on his spine subsided. He vaguely waved his tail, and turned towards the door. Then a mischievous idea took possession of him. At the door he once more faced the congregation, and in a clear, accurate, though wordless, voice he sang the refrain of the hymn that had been sung before he entered. As he turned to leave the building a woman screamed. The minister in a rather strained voice said, “Friends, I think we had better join once more in prayer.”

On another occasion he marched beside the drums of the Salvation Army, sometimes forgetting himself so far as to add his voice to the trumpets. The open air service gave him, he told Thomas, an irrational sense of salvation. What appealed to him most was one of the hymns, sung with immense gusto. “Washed in the blood of the Lamb,” was its theme. He could not resist joining in the singing, though softly. He could not see how the imagery of the hymn agreed with the religion of love, but somehow it had a strange power over him. He vaguely and quite irrationally felt it as unifying all the tenderness of his life with all the wolf in him. He scented again the seductive reek of his killed ram and his killed pony. Somehow the haunting conflict between pity and blood-lust seemed to be resolved. His guilt was washed away. There was no sound reason for this; he just felt it. He and these human animals somehow unloaded their sins upon the Lamb, and found a crude ecstasy of community one with another, and all together. They abased themselves into the personified spirit of the group. The intoxicated minds gave up all attempt to think clearly and feel precisely, and yielded to the common mentality; which somehow seemed to be universal, cosmical, the personified “togetherness” of all individual spirits in all the worlds. Thus he felt, as the barbaric tune soaked through his brain. Yet to another part of his mind the blasting of the trumpets, the thundering of the drums and the lusty human singing seemed as remote as the howling of an alien species in the jungle. Not in this way, said the protesting part of his mind, not in the remission of clear thought and feeling for the sake of the mere warmth of togetherness, could one find the essential spirit, identical in himself and in these humans. Only in the most articulate, precise self and other-consciousness was the thing to be found; for instance on those rare occasions of spiritual accord with Plaxy, when through their very difference and distinctness they discovered their underlying identity. Yes, and in another manner he had sometimes found that thing, with Thomas, when their two intellects had moved together up the steep path of some argument, Thomas always leading, till they had reached together some pinnacle from which, it seemed, they could view the whole universe.

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